The Yakuza (1974)
Japan, its culture and heritage have always been a source of fascination for Hollywood. The Yakuza is a thriller that plays upon the fact that the West at the time was still broadly ignorant of life in post war Japan. As a result, it makes an excellent setting for a story of revenge and honour with its vivid landscape and contrasting culture. This character driven movie encompasses all the best aspects of a mature Hollywood. There are many who consider the period between 1964 – 1976 to be a golden age of American film making. It’s an idea that I find myself hard pressed to argue with as The Yakuza is a prime example of quality film making from that era.
The film portrays the clash of traditional Japanese values during the transition from the US occupation to the country’s economic success in the early 1970s. The story's themes are of moral indebtedness, obligation, loyalty, and personal sacrifice. Eastern and Western cultural values are starkly contrasted, in particular the notion of tradition versus modernity; a dilemma that was prevalent in post war industrial Japan. The film is driven by an incisive and thoughtful script by Paul Schrader and Robert Towne as well as excellent performances by Takakura Ken and Robert Mitchum. The pacing and editing are subtly different from contemporary movie making and reflect a slower more thoughtful pace.
The production is lavish for the times and portrays Japan as a beautiful but alien nation. There are dramatic contrasts between the traditional villages with their shrines and the harsh new modern industrial business centres. Similar themes were explored later by John Frankenheimer in The Challenge (1982). The Yakuza also showcases some succinct and well-choreographed action sequences but they never overwhelm the film or upstage the narrative. The ending is appropriate and credible. Hollywood often ensured at the time that plot realism was not outweighed by commercial demands. The films conclusion features a great deal of moral ambiguity and none of the central characters walks away with a guilt free conscience.
In the hands of such a skilled director such as Sydney Pollack, The Yakuza appeals on many levels. It should not be seen just as a Japanese based action vehicle. Instead it is a well-crafted and poignant character study that explores the meeting of two very different worlds. Forty-three years on its themes of cultural divides are still relevant. Hence, The Yakuza remains fine example of the cerebral film making that was prevalent at the time. A time when the concept of a good story was paramount. Action was simply a means of advancing or complementing the narrative and not the raison d'être of the film itself. Above all this was era when studios still credited the audience with some intelligence.